Tamara Sonn, Historian of Islamic Thought


Religion News Service, USA
www.religionnews.com
December 3, 2003

COMMENTARY: By AKBAR S. AHMED

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at
American University in Washington, D.C., is author most recently of "Islam
Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World," published by Polity
Press.)

At a time when polls confirm the vast majority of Americans have little idea of Islam and many fear it because of a lack of understanding, the work of an established and authoritative historian ofIslam becomes all the more relevant.

That is why the work of Professor Tamara Sonn, the Kenan Distinguished
Professor of Humanities in the department of religion at the College of William and Mary, needs to be even more widely recognized.

Sonn is the president of one of the most respected learned bodies studying Islam, the American Council for the Study of Islamic Societies, and her new book, destined to be a major contribution to scholarship, "A Brief History of Islam," is due to be published in the next few months. Most important, however, her scholarship is rooted in the classic tradition of Islamic learning. Indeed, she has sat at the feet of one of the most outstanding contemporary Islamic scholars, Fazlur Rahman, who taught atthe University of Chicago.

Sonn believes that although there is greater interest in Islam since September 2001, Islam has always been an important subject to teach. "Ever since I started teaching, interest in Islam has been great. I began teaching just after the Islamic Revolution in Iran; the Iran-Iraq war was raging, the Afghan Mujahedeen were in the news nightly as they struggled, with U.S. assistance, against the Soviet occupation, and Hizb Allah and HAMAS were becoming very active. A bit later the Algerian civil war began, Saddam occupied Kuwait, and the World Trade Center was bombed fo the first time."

During this time, she said, people flocked to her classes trying to find out why there is so much violence in the Muslim world. "It has always been a struggle to convince people that Islam is not the source of violence in the Muslim world; the roots lay in specific and readily identifiable conditions associated with post-colonialism and world geopolitics.

"The only thing that has really changed since Sept. 11 is awareness that what happens in the Muslim world really does affect America. Until then, unfortunately, Americans were under the impression that those difficult circumstances -- lack of development and lack of democracy -- affected only
people in the Middle East or South Asia."

I have had the honor of having Sonn lecture to my class at American University. She has a charismatic personality that mesmerizes students. Her compassion and learning shine through in her dealings with people. Above all she sees her work as an attempt to create bridges of understanding. "As horrendous as the events of Sept. 11 were, I take Americans' new awareness of the impact of events in the Muslim world on their lives as an important opportunity," she says. "... Among many there is also curiosity. I believe this curiosity ... offers a great teaching opportunity. For too long Americans have remained unaware of the realities of Islam and the Muslim world. This allows for the misperception that the radicalized few -- the terrorists -- represent all Muslims."

She believes that by presenting Islamic ideals in familiar contexts Americans can learn that Islam is a kindred tradition to Judaism and Christianity, and by looking at history, particularly the history of colonialism, people understand how radicalization occurs. Sonn recounts an encounter with a student to illustrate her point. "I just gave a lecture on the development of anti-West ideology in the Muslim world. When they were introduced to Quranic ideals, students were amazed at the similarities between Islam, Judaism and Christianity. When they heard of the events during Prophet Muhammad's lifetime, they were in awe of Islam's inclusiveness, tolerance and concern for social justice. ...Then, as we worked through the realities of both colonial history and European anti-Semitism, they had to face the hard facts: anti-Western ideologies developed in the context of European and American betrayals. Finally, we discussed Vatican Council II ... when Christians faced the roots of their betrayal of their own values. At that point, a Muslim student said he felt Muslims, too, must face the roots of their own hatreds. "While Muslims have historic reasons for distrusting Europeans and Americans, the student said, Islam does not allow mistrust to turn into hatred. Muslims, he said, must likewise confront their violations of their own principles.

Sonn said the student's comments had an enormous impact on the class. The simple recognition of accountability and acknowledgment of shared values were enough to transform the discussion from one of antipathy to a sense of solidarity. "I believe that student changed the lives of many Americans today -- and made my job much easier! To me, the ability of a single student to have such an impact is a very hopeful sign."

In the war of ideas and cultures that is raging in the world today, America needs its top-notch scholars like Sonn to help illuminate our contemporary world. She deserves the gratitude of all those who wish to understand the post-September world in which we find ourselves. Her wisdom, knowledge and compassion shine out on a confused, anarchic and dark landscape.

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